One Airport Today Shows Why Airlines Are Extending Elite Status Again

Delta and Air Canada have gone ahead and just extended everyone’s status again.

American, after offering several promotions, is letting everyone keep their current status for $2000 in travel spend or $15,000 in credit card spend during defined periods.

On Friday afternoon United came out with a promotion where anyone who could publish the solution to cold fusion in a peer-reviewed journal will have their status renewed for next year.

American and United are still trying to press elites into service for 2021 revenue, but there’s only so much that can be done because business travel isn’t back and the Delta variant of Covid-19 is slowing down its return. Large companies and corporate travel buyers are going to be more conservative about pushing employees back into the office and ultimately onto the road.

Looking at Saturday data from American Airlines shows just how skewed towards leisure travel the skies are right now. The number of elite frequent flyers traveling is paltry especially at the very top level.

  • American had 9600 seats for sale out of Orlando on Saturday
  • Of those, they’d sold 9011 as of Saturday morning
  • Out of those 9011 passengers, 281 had AAdvantage elite status of any kind (3.1%). That’s the equivalent of 5 passengers with any status at all on a completely full Boeing 737.
  • Only one of those 281 elite members was a Concierge Key.

You might think that Orlando is uniquely likely to be a leisure city and have a lower number of elite passengers, but it’s actually indicative of the system as a whole today:

  • 596,049 customers booked
  • 20.708 total elite passengers (3.5%)
  • 482 Concierge Key members traveling

Two years ago it was revealed there were 11,300 chocolates sent to Concierge Key members, consistent with the 10,000 to 15,000 estimate I’ve been written about since 2014.

American Airlines extended Concierge Key member status for 2022 without any required action on their part. United Airlines did the same with their comparable Global Services members. While they’re trying to get others to go through hoops to keep status, they:

  • Realize their highest spenders are also most likely to be grounded
  • That there are few opportunities to be buying long haul business class tickets
  • Want to retain these customers in case their travel behavior (or travel influencing behavior) in the future is anything like it was in the Before TImes

While there are more loyalty program members and elite members traveling now than a year ago, it’s nothing like normal times. Projections across the board at the airlines are for fewer elites qualifying even with reduced threshold and promotions that ran in the first months of the year. So they’ve either extended status outright or made it easy for members to keep their status – provided they are savvy enough about the science of cold fusion.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Very cool to see this level of stats…. Thanks for sharing!
    Any chance you could look at a major non hub airport for AA like Denver for similar stats on a weekday? I flew DIA this week and it was PACKED!

  2. @ Gary — Yeah, awesome week to travel. As EXP, we received op-up J to F upgrades last Saturday from JFK to SFO and again today from SFO to JFK. And these bumps were on award tickets that cost just 45k r/t nonstop in Flagship Business Class. Like 1990s….

  3. I recently took a trip with a couple of friends to San Fran/Monterey. I had booked us SFO-ORD-MCO on award tickets in economy for our return flight (AA wanted an obscene number of points for J). First was already full weeks before the flight, so zero upgrades.

    Anyway, when we boarded at SFO, I realized I was literally the ONLY EXP in economy on the flight – we were the only economy passengers in group 1. Never experienced that before!

  4. OPM stay home!

    Let us real elites who dont rely on their corporate overlords keep flying.

  5. I dunno,

    1) I’d love to see numbers during the same week of 2019
    2) This seems skewed. On Delta flights I have had recently, upgrade list shave generally been between now 25-40 people long – a bit smaller than normal but still pretty meaningful
    3) The after times may not be like the before times. Maybe airlines should try to make elites out of more of the population that is currently traveling

  6. What elites would ever be traveling on a Saturday? Road warriors are going to be M-Th or Sunday PM if they need to be on site early Monday. Maybe a Friday flight if there is a meeting. Leisure travel would be direct from the client / customer site to the third city in many cases, or on a Friday PM. Fly home Sunday night or direct to the client / customer site Monday AM. No one would burn a hard earned Saturday in transit.

  7. LOL I thought your cold fusion comment was real! Glad I’m not the only one confused. Altho I found this promo to be much clearer than the May one!

  8. I’m fascinated by this. I’m Platinum Pro, and while I have not flown a lot since reaching it, have not been upgraded yet, and feel sort of like a dime a dozen. So we will see, I guess. Thanks for the info. Maybe worth going for EXP after all. Will absolutely make it with miles. Short on EQDs by 3000 or so, so it’s quite an investment.

  9. One more data point – as an EXP, I have flown 60 segments in the last 11 months and have been upgraded on all but 2 of them. On the other hand, Doug Parker often talks about recognizing AA’s best passengers with a thank you (because it’s free to do so), out of the 60 segments, there were three in which a flight attendant recognized and thanked me for my EXP status.

  10. # Gary @ Gary Hey, Gary

    Business travelers fly out Sunday or Monday and return Thursday or Friday.

    Saturday is the worst day to compare data about business travel, unless your goal is cherry picking data.

    You need data from the business week to evaluate business travel.

  11. I just traveled from Miami to Charlotte

    Gate attendants don’t even enforce status for checkin. No one speaks English and they all run forward when boarding starts. I said to myself wow lots of zone 1 people here until I noticed the guy in front of me was zone 7 and he handed his ticked to gate agent and walked right through with FC and zone 1

  12. A more relevant data point. Monday DFW to LGA. Both wife and I had upgrade requests. I am EXP so likely but it has not been automatic even for the 5 years I was CK. Nearly to EQD this year so showing up number 1 was not a surprise. One CK boarded. Wife was number 2 as a platinum and on a different PNR so it was based on her status. Both of us received upgrade.

  13. AA had a better path to status extension up until Delta did an across the board extension. Since Delta extended my Platinum Medallion status til 2023 I am giving up on AA platinum status even though I have about 15X the miles on AA and prefer OneWorld internationally. I’m giving AA til mid month before I scrap it and switch my “loyalty”.

  14. Using MCO on a Saturday no less is hardly an accurate metric to base % of elite flying. Perhaps if you looked at DFW or ORD on a Monday would yield much accurate results.

    Pretty much useless information I’m afraid.

  15. I was one of the 3.5% AA elites flying on Saturday (out of LAX) and was astonished that as an lowly Plat my traveling companion and I were upgraded not at the gate but in advance. Even though it was but a 337 mile flight, I can’t remember that happening in the last decade. The next trip, back to steerage.

  16. I am 1K on United and have given up trying to figure out the latest algebraic hoops for keeping status. It’s just too complex.

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